Use of gambling language in politics

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Yesterday on the public radio program Marketplace, Sarah Gardner interviewed Ben Zimmer about the Obama campaign's "Betting on America" theme ("The president is a 'betting' man", 7/5/2012):

Gardner: Now as you just heard, the president was talking a lot about betting today. He's betting on the American worker, he's betting on Ohio, he's betting on America. What's with all the betting?

Zimmer: Well it reminds me of the whole tradition of gambling metaphors in American politics where you talk about the odds, the whole language of gambling, of bluffing, tipping your hand, raising the stakes. So it draws on that, at the same time is draws on a sense of confidence, the ability to take risks, which is perhaps an image that Obama would like to portray. At the same time, he doesn't want to be seen as a foolish risk taker. He says that he is going to bet on the American worker, and so that is giving you the sense that it's a sure bet, it's a bet that's going to pay off.

The interview was a short one, and there weren't any historical details, so I thought I'd throw open the comments for contributions about the use of gambling metaphors in American (and world) political history.

One obvious example is the "New Deal", a phrase introduced in FDR's 1932 speech accepting the presidential nomination:

Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth… I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.

I believe that "new deal" in this sense refers to the situations mandated in the rules of some card games, which call in certain circumstances for the cards as distributed to be recalled in favor of a new deal. In poker in particular,

… any error in the initial deal, such as giving too many or too few cards to any player, dealing an extra hand or missing out a player who should have been dealt a hand, omitting the shuffle or cut or exposing cards counts as a misdeal, provided that it is pointed out before there has been significant action. In this case the cards are thrown in, the shuffle and cut are repeated and the cards are redealt by the same dealer.

There can be more elaborate rules or policies, but the general idea is that the initial conditions of the game should be fair, and that violations of this principle should be fixed by declaring a misdeal, recalling the cards, and starting over.

Roosevelt's slogan was potentially ambiguous between the sense of deal that the OED glosses as "Cards. The distribution to the players of the cards required for a game", and the sense glossed as "An act of dealing or buying and selling; a business transaction, bargain. vulgar or slang". However, it has always seemed to me that the card-playing sense predominated in this case.

Truman's "Fair Deal" slogan recycled the same word, but in a way that moved further in the direction of interpreting deal as "business transaction, bargain" rather than "distribution of cards":

I am happy to report to this 81st Congress that the state of the Union is good. Our Nation is better able than ever before to meet the needs of the American people, and to give them their fair chance in the pursuit of happiness. [...]

The Government must see that every American has a chance to obtain his fair share of our increasing abundance. [...]

We cannot maintain prosperity unless we have a fair distribution of opportunity and a widespread consumption of the products of our factories and farms. [...]

The strength of our Nation must continue to be used in the interest of all our people rather than a privileged few. [...]

This is the task before us.

It is not an easy one. It has many complications, and there will be strong opposition from selfish interests.

I hope for cooperation from farmers, from labor, and from business. Every segment of our population and every individual has a right to expect from our Government a fair deal.

A "fair deal" could be an honest distribution of cards — with the subtle implication that the other party might well be dealing from the bottom of the deck — but the dominant interpretation, it seems to me, is a society-level bargain in which everyone gets treated fairly.

As Andrew pointed out in the comments, the whole "ADJ Deal" slogan series started with Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal", which seems to have first been used in 1903:

In speaking on Labor Day at the annual fair of the New York State Agricultural Association, it is natural to keep especially in mind the two bodies who compose the majority of our people and upon whose welfare depends the welfare of the entire State. If circumstances are such that thrift, energy, industry, and forethought enable the farmer, the tiller of the soil, on the one hand, and the wage-worker on the other, to keep themselves, their wives, and their children in reasonable comfort, then the State is well off, and we can be assured that the other classes in the community will likewise prosper. On the other hand, if there is in the long run a lack of prosperity among the two classes named, then all other prosperity is sure to be more seeming than real. […]

We must act upon the motto of all for each and each for all. There must be ever present in our minds the fundamental truth that in a republic such as ours the only safety is to stand neither for nor against any man because he is rich or because he is poor, because he is engaged in one occupation or another, because he works with his brains or because he works with his hands. We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less.

That sense of deal strikes me as the general "system for dividing into parts for distribution" sense, rather than the more specific card-distribution sense.

As for previous presidential uses of the "betting on America" concept, there's one in Ronald Reagan's 1987 State of the Union address:

We the people–starting the third century of a dream and standing up to some cynic who's trying to tell us we're not going to get any better. Are we at the end? Well, I can't tell it any better than the real thing–a story recorded by James Madison from the final moments of the Constitutional Convention, September 17th, 1787. As the last few members signed the document, Benjamin Franklin–the oldest delegate at 81 years and in frail health–looked over toward the chair where George Washington daily presided. At the back of the chair was painted the picture of a Sun on the horizon. And turning to those sitting next to him, Franklin observed that artists found it difficult in their painting to distinguish between a rising and a setting Sun.

Well, I know if we were there, we could see those delegates sitting around Franklin–leaning in to listen more closely to him. And then Dr. Franklin began to share his deepest hopes and fears about the outcome of their efforts, and this is what he said: "I have often looked at that picture behind the President without being able to tell whether it was a rising or setting Sun: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun." Well, you can bet it's rising because, my fellow citizens, America isn't finished. Her best days have just begun.

Update — though gamble is generally a negatively-evaluated word, at least in political rhetoric, Harry Truman used it in his statement "Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima (August 6, 1945)":

We now have two great plants and many lesser works devoted to the production of atomic power. Employment during peak construction numbered 125,000 and over 65,000 individuals are even now engaged in operating the plants. Many have worked there for two and a half years. Few know what they have been producing. They see great quantities of material going in and they see nothing coming out of these plants, for the physical size of the explosive charge is exceedingly small. We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history-and won.

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13 Comments »

  1. [links] Link salad for another Pacific Northwest Friday | jlake.com said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    [...] Use of gambling language in politics — This is interesting. ericjamesstone and I were recently going back and forth on the use of the imagery of violence in political rhetoric, and the question of when that crosses over from metaphor to literal threat. I hadn't thought about that in terms of gambling imagery. [...]

  2. John Lawler said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    Let's not forget that The Sport of Kings would not exist without gambling, and that Horse Racing is the predominant metaphor for The Presidential Race — touts, pageantry, fans, scandals, fixing, doping, finish line, home stretch, and all.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    I think "New Deal" may also literally be an example of this sense: "1. The act or system of dividing into parts for distribution; sharing" (OED).

    I found hits for "Obama jackpot", such as a description of the huge amount of money he raised in 2008. More literally and recently, there's Obama camp: Dinner with POTUS like $640M jackpot:

    "'Didn't hit the jackpot last night?' the Obama campaign asked supporters in an email, referring to the $640 million Mega Millions jackpot awarded yesterday. 'There's another drawing happening at midnight: We're picking the last guest for Dinner with Barack. You have a much better shot at winning this.' Supporters can have their names entered into the drawing by donating $3 or more to the campaign."

    @John Lawler: I'm not sure horse racing is the predominant metaphor for the Race, as there's another one for the Campaign—for example, "Obama camp" above.

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    The 'deal' metaphor had already been used before both FDR and Truman, in Teddy Roosevelt's 'Square Deal'. What would the specific source of that be?

    [(myl) Excellent point -- I forgot about that one. I believe that this is the first use (1903):

    In speaking on Labor Day at the annual fair of the New York State Agricultural Association, it is natural to keep especially in mind the two bodies who compose the majority of our people and upon whose welfare depends the welfare of the entire State. If circumstances are such that thrift, energy, industry, and forethought enable the farmer, the tiller of the soil, on the one hand, and the wage-worker on the other, to keep themselves, their wives, and their children in reasonable comfort, then the State is well off, and we can be assured that the other classes in the community will likewise prosper. On the other hand, if there is in the long run a lack of prosperity among the two classes named, then all other prosperity is sure to be more seeming than real. [...]

    We must act upon the motto of all for each and each for all. There must be ever present in our minds the fundamental truth that in a republic such as ours the only safety is to stand neither for nor against any man because he is rich or because he is poor, because he is engaged in one occupation or another, because he works with his brains or because he works with his hands. We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less.

    That sense of deal is pretty clearly the general "system for dividing into parts for distribution" sense, rather than the more specific card-distribution sense.]

  5. Andy Averill said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    Gambling terms can have both negative and positive implications. "I'm betting on America's future" is a good thing, mostly. "My opponent is gambling with your future", not so good. One shows confidence, the other recklessness.

  6. Eric Walkingshaw said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    Building on Andy's comment above, during this campaign Obama has been criticized for "gambling with taxpayer (money|dollars)". This was also a common refrain during the housing bubble fallout. A Google search turns up several recent results.

  7. blahedo said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    Huh! I had never once thought of the card-playing sense of "deal" in interpreting the phrase "New Deal", although I rather like the idea of looking at an existing system and declaring a misdeal.

  8. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    "Well, I know if we were there, we could see those delegates … "

    It seems to me that Reagan's use of "were" is very similar to the Huffington Post use that Geoff Pullum blogged about here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4049

  9. Karl Weber said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    Truman's famous slogan "The buck stops here" originated as a poker expression: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_passing

  10. AK Gençlik said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

    Politika yapmak zor iş sizler tebrik ediyorum. Başarılar

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    Maybe it's not too late to mention that there's been a lot of double down lately. From a speech by Obama on June 14, "…let’s double down on a clean energy industry that has never been more promising." And the Romney campaign has been using it. Tim Pawlenty has been quoted here as saying, "We should all bet on the country, but we shouldn't double down on Barack Obama."

  12. Paul Kay said,

    July 11, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    It seems to me that Andrew's observation that Teddy Roosevelt spoke of a square deal in 1903 pretty much rules out the possibility that FDR had the cards sense in mind when he spoke of a new deal in 1932. I was, however, surprised to find in the OED that the cards sense is in fact older in the language. The earliest citation for the cards sense is 1607, but for the bargain sense as late as 1837. Perhaps relevantly, the latter citation speaks of a 'fair deal': 1837–40 T.C. HALIBURTON Clockmaker (1862) 305 Six dollars apiece for the pictures is about the fair deal for the price.

  13. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik said,

    July 13, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    [...] Language Log, Mark Liberman discussed the use of gambling language in politics; the evolution of the Higgs Boson particle; the because NOUN formation; and rounded up some [...]

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